“I Am Not Black, I Am Ethiopian”…okay


The title of this piece may have already caused a certain kind of feeling inside you. Whether its resentment, pride or disagreement is the core of why I was inspired to pen this article. To give you a little bit of a background, let’s resort to the undying words of the Hip-hop legend Jay-Z, I refer to his most recent album 444, particularly that of ‘The Story of O.J.’.

In the song, Jay-Z reminds us that regardless of O.J’s wealth and fame, he was a black person first.
‘O.J. be like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” …okay’

Was it a reminder, too, that the thing O.J. forgot, maybe, was that as rich as he was, as entitled as his life was, he was reminded very forcefully when he became a subject of racial debate that he was also a black man, whether he accepted that or not?- NYTIMES

This makes me think of how we, Ethiopians, stereotypically perceive ourselves as a different sect altogether. It is true that we are a longstanding sovereign country, who do not hail colonization in our history, and our grand and grand parents have given their lives to make it remain so. But that does not give us an exemption from our blackness.

The colonial powers didn’t see us any special than the rest of the continent when they decided to invade us, to enslave our people, loot our resources and degrade our humanity. Had that been the case, Ethiopians would entirely fail to relate or connect with the black identity. Historically, however, Ethiopia has been a beacon of for a lot of African countries’ liberation and hope. Pride, while remaining black was our source of identity. It is true we didn’t experience the segregation and amount of racism others faced but the color of our skin didn’t make us immune from being profiled.

Ironically, the first time I was racially profiled as a black person was at Axum Hotel in Mekelle, in my own home country. I was a university student working with students from Ireland at the time. After a fieldwork, we went to Axum Hotel and right at the gate the security guard allowed my white friends to pass without searching them but he started to search me. Two of my white friends were shocked at the scene and I started to react “why are you searching me but not them…..is it because I am Ethiopian and they are Ferenj……..Do you think they will tip you just because you did this”. My friends wanted to speak with the manager and for some reason, I didn’t want to cost him his job and he may not be really aware of his actions as racial profiling; rather he might be over-reaching to please the whites to get tips. Plus he was an old man who probably has a family to feed.

As I start taking notice of the trend on how white people get privileged in Ethiopia, a country that assumes to be immune from colonial influence, it didn’t take me long to realize we are enslaved mentally. This is also backed by highly renowned movie director Professor Haile Gerima who shares his experience of being asked to leave his seat for whites at a restaurant in Addis and he also adds a similar treatment that happened at the swimming pools of Ethiopia’s five-star hotels.

If we assume all foreigners from the west are rich, then how come Oprah Winfrey was racially profiled in Ethiopia a few decades ago? Assuming most white people are better positioned economically than black people may be true statistically. But serving them with upgraded hospitality is what I call mental slavery. Unfortunately, the experience doesn’t end here. Rather it is cascaded within many of my Ethiopian friends who find it difficult to identify themselves as black or do not get offended by white privilege in their own country.

In fact, white faces have been a key to unlock bureaucratic vaults in some of the companies we visited for sponsoring our events. I remember at some fundraising event where the speaker switched his speech from Amharic to English to comfort one American while there were 90 Ethiopians in the crowd and where the majority can’t even speak English. I reacted on social media two years ago when TEDxAddis turned the stage as if it was a sports match in which there were 7 Ethiopian speakers matched by 7 white speakers. None of the speakers were speaking in their local language even though TED Talk allows any language at the stage. What worse was that out of the 13 TED Talks that had Amharic subtitle none of them are speeches were made by Ethiopian.

During my high school days I have read Malcolm X, seen Roots and listened to Tupac, but I cannot say I was very conscious of the color of my skin at the time. The realization of myself as a black person starts to take shape before my Axum Hotel experience. Listening to Professor Haile Gerima and how he discovered his black identity in the 60’s when he traveled for his studies in the US awakens me. When I came to the US, I was very prepared and realistic about the challenges I will face as far as racial profiling was concerned. I wonder how many Ethiopians are mentally prepared to absorb the shock of racial profiling when they arrive in America or Europe.  But I am sure they gradually become aware that they are black too.

I wrote this article as a response to those Ethiopians who took President Trump “Shit-hole” statement lightly. In fact, some had the courage to agree with him because of political difference with the incumbent in Ethiopia. What they failed to realize is, Trump does not have the sophistication to analyze and insult governance in Africa. Rather he simply brushed his racial broom on Africa and Haiti because of the color of our skin.

I personally didn’t stop by expressing my frustration and rage on social media.  I took one step further and made a petition form demanding the US embassy to officially denounce the president’s remark. Counting on my 10,000 social media friends in all platforms I made the petition target to be signed by 10,000. Despite my rich social media circle, only 41 people filled the form in which 23 of whom were outside Ethiopia and fourteen were not even Ethiopians. In fact, to my surprise, they were mostly whites. Then three questions crossed my mind
1. Do people in Ethiopia feel insecure to sign a petition against US Embassy fearing their name will be archived when one day they go for visa interview?
2. Do Ethiopians in the diaspora feel afraid that they might lose their asylum or immigrant status because they signed this petition?
3. Do Ethiopians really understand their position in Africa beyond its geographical context?

It is too important to embrace our identity as a black and African more than the attention we give to the west. We cannot take pride about Adwa at a time where our brothers and sisters are auctioned in the Libyan slave market. We cannot sing or perform about Adwa at a time were celebrities and public figures run to the US to give birth for the sake of getting US citizenship for their newborn. We cannot embrace Adwa when we are still closed borders with Eritrea and best friends with Italia.



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    Asfaha Tesfai

    I have been to Ethiopia several times a year for the past 20 years and have frequented many of the hotels and restaurants frequented by white visitors. I had never experienced any profiling and was never asked to leave my seat so a white person can sit in a restaurant. Perhaps the Ethiopia you visit may not be the same as the one I visit.

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      As a resident I have to say, that is either selective attention or chance. There is a tremendous difference in the way that foreigners (Especially white foreigners) are treated and locals are.

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      Samuel Aseffa

      Asfaha, I’m glad you never had such an experience but l don’t think it would be fair to discount the author’s own stated experience. How would you describe what happened to Oprah? Was that a different Ethiopia too,

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    Abel, I’ve been in the states now for a little over 22 years and been back home several times with my most recent visit being a year ago. I definitely agree with your point of view. I remember how shocked I was the first time this African American sister asked me, “why do you Ethiopians say you are not black?” I was taken back by her question as I’ve never heard that before… I had only been in the states less than 6 months when this happened. My response to her was, “I don’t know where you got that from. As far as I’m concerned, I’m black.” She then started sharing how she had met several Ethiopians through the years and how most of them said they weren’t black. Come to find out, there were quite a number of people from my own circle of friends and family who happend to think along that line with their rationale being we were people with our own history. While we have our own individual history, as you put it well, I sure maintained that my ancestral history does not exempt my blackness in any way. As far as the world is concerned, black is black and white is white irrespective of where one comes from.

    As for the “racial profiling” you mentioned experiencing back home, I may not use the same word as you. However, I’ve had my fair share of experience especially when going thorough the airport services and my most recent experience at the immigration service two years ago… I call that simple ignorance, the reason being that I don’t think those doing the preferential treatment intended it that way.

    I think our country as been brain washed for a very long time to think that anything black is bad and anything white is good. To mention a few, we wear black for funerals and white for happy occasions such as weddings, holidays, christening… Black injera or bread was considered the food for the poor and the white ones for the rich… Satan is black and Angels are white… I even recall growing up how my grandmother would say it was an angel I saw in my dream if the person was white or light skinned or Satan or bad person if the person was dark skinned… Just looking at the pictures of our Orthodox Churches and monasteries would be enough to see the misguided depiction of Satan, even though the Bible clearly referred him as an angel of light who was thrown out of the heavens, losing all his glory… If Satan came as the ugly pictures we had been thought to believe, he world not have any one falling for his tricks…Being dark was ugly, but if one was light skinned they were considered beautiful… Remember the phrase, “qeye sew melk ayifejim?” Ferenj is rich and giving but not the other way around, hence the famous phrase we grew up hearing, ” Ferenj, give me money?” I can go on and on with similar examples…

    Retrospectively speaking, I attribute all these ill thoughts were birthed out of ignorance… I wish there was something I can do to change the perspective of my fellow Ethiopians who still think that way. I recall how disappointed I was too learn that whole wheat or black bread or injera actually had more nutrition value the the white ones as well as brown rice…

    After all these years though, what I’ve learned is that the heart of the matter hasn’t changed. Prejudice and discrimination will not go away regardless of how modernized or advanced we may get in anything, because these things are ingrained in our fabric as part of our sinful nature… So long as we continue to exist and operate in a broken world of broken people with broken systems, these things will continue to exist along with the rest of the other evil things we see and experience every single day. The only thing I know that I can do is to try to overcome these things by choosing love and kindness every time I am met with the opposite… It’s not easy, but I can keep trying every day that I’m alive…

    I was not shocked or surprised to hear what the POTUS had said recently about African nations or Hatie. I was not upset either. Nothing that he says or does could surprise me after all the things he had said and done and got away with since he got in the office… That fact alone blows my mind wondering how much evil can be tolerated in this day and age, of all the places in the world, in the United States of America!!! I’m just waiting for what more crazy things he would manage to get away with before his time is up, however long it may be… I would have signed your petition had I came across it, though I don’t really believe it would change anything… It was a great read though, thank you!!!

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    Shalo Ashenafi

    As long as you keep defining yourself as black, and themselves as white, you are falling into a separation, a mistake, a destructive mindset that tries to highlight the difference, not what we have in common. Are you black? Really? Ask a Kenyan if you are black. Let’s see what he says. Then, what are people from Gambella? Wait, and what about the whole spectrum that we have, not only in Ethiopia, but in many other countries, like Brazil? Show defines what are you and where is the line?

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    ምነው ሸዋ

    Talking about being brain washed, who came up with the racial classification first of all? who came up with the Caucasian , mongoloid and negroid shit? isn’t it the whites who grouped the world populations in to three groups them being the first class and we the dark skinned being the third class human beings (at times we were less of a human being according to them)?

    so yes most Ethiopians/Habesha people consider themselves as Ethiopians/ Habesha and others are the “others”. so you are telling us that we should folow the white man classifications of race but not the Ethiopians. if ethiopians do not believe they are black then they are not. For you race might be about only the color of a skin( even if it was how many shades of skin we have in Ethiopia ኧረ in a single family?) but in my opinion it is more than that; it is about identity that you give to yourself or to your own community.

    if you think you are black/Negro just the way the white man told you then you have the right to believe so. if you believe you are the cursed black being who should be a slave for the whites then you have the right to be. if you believe you belong to the group of sub humans called the Negros as the white man told you so then a big yes you have the right to believe so. but never assume that we all are black or we should think we are black. you are entitled to think so but Ethiopians do not need the white mans classification of race period.

    P.s The Ethiopian orthodox church always use ጠይም for the face of Angeles not white…if you are talking about the imported pictures then you should go ask the importers not the church.

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      Edom Bekele

      I agreed with the article when I first read it and now that I’ve read your comment I also agree with you. We should not accept the white man’s classifications but I also understand what the author was trying to convey especially when living abroad. Usually when people say they are Ethiopian and not black, they are trying to distance themselves from the negative attitudes and stereotypes towards black people which they will unfortunately fall victim to regardless of being habesha. So when people say they are not black it seems like it’s undesirable to be black. If people said they were Ethiopian and not black for reasons you just explained then there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that in the global world solidarity is also important because they view us the same.

      agree with you on the churches I’ve always seen teyim angels.

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